Spirituality, religion, and chronic pain: Making a difference in non-traditional ways

A life that’s totally free of chronic pain is a great goal. But for some people, that goal is just out of reach. So if medication and other doctor-recommended treatments haven’t removed all of your pain, what’s left to bring comfort?

For many people, “what’s left” has been part of their lives all along – a connection to a higher power, life force, nature, or to the people around them. And researchers say that this type of spiritual connection may make a difference in how someone feels pain.

Spirituality vs religion

Being spiritual and being religious aren’t the same things, even though the words are often used in place of each other.

  • Spirituality is a sense of peace, purpose, and connection to others. It can be a relationship with God, or a belief in a higher power, energy, or force.
  • Religion, on the other hand, is a set of beliefs and practices linked to a specific group. You can be spiritual without being part of any organized religion.

Research suggests that there’s a connection between religious activity and better health. Some of these activities include prayer, inspirational reading, going to worship services, spiritual meditation, and asking for support from clergy or members of the religious community. In some parts of the U.S., as many as 90% of patients use religion to help them cope with illness.

For many people with chronic pain, prayer is a big part of their spiritual prescription for health. One study of people with arthritis found that 92% of African-Americans and 50% of Hispanics use prayer to help them deal with pain. Another study of people with arthritis or neck/back pain found that prayer was the most commonly-used non-medical way of managing their pain. Examples of other non-medical treatments included changes in diet, and massage therapy.
But why would prayer make a difference in how you feel?

Pain pathways

It all starts with the “Gate Control Theory of Pain.” In plain English, this theory says that pain isn’t just a signal that goes straight from your injured hand (for example) to your brain and back again. Along the way, your feelings, thoughts, and how you act can all make changes to the strength of that pain signal: What you say and do can help you cope with that pain.

Here are some ways that prayer may help:

  • It’s a distraction from pain.
  • It can make it easier to relax, which may change how your pain feels.
  • It lowers stress levels.
  • If others pray with you, or for you, it provides emotional support and a chance to get together with people in your religious community.

All of these results count on religion and spirituality as being a good force in a person’s life. But what happens if a person thinks of God or a universal life force in a negative way? For example, some people may feel that God has abandoned them at a time when they most needed help; others may feel that their chronic pain is a just punishment for bad things that they’ve said or done. Research shows that people with this kind of negative thinking tend to have worse physical and mental health than those with positive spiritual views.

The hand in the bucket

Plunge your hand in a bucket of very cold water, and see how long you can hold it there. That’s what one researcher tried in 2006, as part of a study on people with chronic migraine headaches (migraineurs). She wanted to see if migraineurs who did spiritual meditation every day could handle more pain than migraineurs who did standard (non-religious) meditation. The only difference between the two groups in the study was the short phrase that each person repeated while meditating: They used either a spiritual statement, like “God is peace,” or a more secular (worldly) phrase, like “I am happy.”

What did she find? People who did spiritual meditation for 20 minutes per day, four times per week not only had fewer overall migraines, but they could also withstand pain for longer periods of time. These patients still felt the pain, they just managed it better.

In short, spiritual meditation:

  • Made people feel more positive
  • Lowered their anxiety levels
  • Increased their overall spiritual feelings
  • Made them feel better able to cope with their headache pain
  • Gave them a higher ability to tolerate pain

Future research on spirituality, religion, and pain may find more ways for people with chronic pain to improve their quality of life.


Mayo Clinic
http://www.mayoclinic.com (search on “spirituality”)

National Cancer Institute
http://www.cancer.gov (search on “spirituality and chronic pain”)

Arthritis Foundation
http://www.arthritis.org (search on “the power of prayer” and “spirituality and arthritis outcomes”)